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Thursday, June 10, 2004

more from Tehran...

City of Constrasts
It is indeed amazing how much of a contrast there is within this very city. While overall I still maintain that Tehran at least seems to have changed and ‘reformed’ itself over the past two years, it is amazing how much of a difference there is within the space of a few kilometers.

In the north, where the city slowly climbs the mountains that borders this megalopolis, if one were to stay blind to a few minor items, one could be fooled into thinking they were in scores of other places around the world. In the centre-city, where I happen to be staying, it at least seems as though all the adjectives that one would get if they had a poll of one thousand people as to what they thought would best describe a developing world capital city. In the centre, the roads are more chaotic; the signs of Islamic observance more apparent; police and military more visible; the people significantly less well-off. Radical changes within a city is not unique to this part of the world but given the images that are often associated with this country, and indeed this region, it is interesting that even within such a very small geographic space that the differences are so large.

I recall thinking something similar last time I was here in Iran with respect to Tehran compared to Qom, just south of here. Qom is an important pilgrimage site for Shiite Muslims, and quite conservative. Now, having spent considerably more time in Tehran than I did last time around, I am amazed that to find such dramatic contrasts within an even smaller area. It is no wonder to me now why I was told my a north Tehran woman and her friends the other day that they were scared to go to Qom – to travel from north Tehran to Qom would indeed be a shock, particularly when Qom is seen by the people here as a base of what many here detest in their government. For me I’m sure the shift would be dramatic – more so than just returning there straight from the centre of Tehran, but for me, while no fan of the regime, Qom is only the political base of something that I study, not the base of something I have to live with.

Voting in Iran
It appears as if I just might be able to vote in the upcoming Canadian federal election. After numerous attempts to contact the Canadian embassy to determine the process, it seems like they just might have a ballot for me ahead of the June 20 mail-in deadline. Now, I used ‘appears as if’ and ‘seems like’ because the people at the embassy don’t inspire much confidence. I know a good number of very intelligent people who have written the Foreign Service exam and none of them passed through to the next stage. Perhaps the key to success on the exam is to tick the “I’m not sure” box, as this is all I got in response to my questions.

Martyr’s Museum
Across the street from the old US embassy in central Tehran (now occupied by the military, covered in murals denouncing the United States and Israel, and called the ‘US den of espionage’) is the Martyr’s Museum.

Inside are several hundred exhibits of sorts, each profiling a different martyr, most of them killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Some are religious figures, most are soldiers, and the vast majority were martyred quite young, with one only 13. Each person (only one of the martyrs profiled is a woman) has space for their personal effects, usually their identity card, some money, some pictures and oftentimes the clothes they were wearing when they were killed, still bloodstained. Some have copies of the Quran, a handful of which had bullet holes in them. Each had a small biography, including the work they did before and after the revolution in aid of the cause. The older ones had almost all gone to Lebanon and Syria in the 1970s. Many of the younger ones had letters to their parents profiled, one 16 year old saying to his father that by signing the letter to allow him to go to the front he had signed his papers to martyrdom and he had therefore done his part for the revolution and would be a martyr as well. The religious men all seemed to have been killed around the time of the revolution, most by the MKO (Mujahedin Khalq) from 1979-1981.

It was rather chilling to see, particularly as recordings above some of the martyrs called the museum a “beautiful and wonderful place” while at the same time featuring some pictures of the martyred after they died. The fact that this place exists, and is reasonably well maintained despite the lack of visitors (I was the only one today) is probably telling of the level of control exercised by the more conservative elements here. Particularly interesting was that this was the only museum I’ve been to in Iran (this time or last) that criticized the last Shah. Even at some of his former palaces, where criticism of the Shah would be easy, particularly given the excesses and lavish decorations, it is not at all obvious that the Shah was removed in the way that he was. The only possible explanation I can think of is that the more ‘traditional’ museums, including the Shah’s old palaces are under the control of one government ministry while the Martyr’s Museum is under the control of another.

I am still having trouble uploading photos and I can't imagine my chances improving when I leave Tehran Friday morning.